Warning: This episode recap contains spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t see any press about Doctor Who before watching the episode. I didn’t get spoiled this week, but sometimes cheeky little comments in interviews can take the impact out of a moment. In this episode, we were promised some of the scariest Who monsters yet and, well yes, but not in the way you’d think. When you see a reveal like this coming, it takes away the dramatic impact and replaces it with preachy anvilly hammering. Such is the case in “Orphan 55.”
So, Team TARDIS wins a free trip, but not only have we seen TV before, we’ve seen Doctor Who before, so obviously this trip is not just a trip. It’s an unwritten rule of the show that the more harmless or friendly the name of the place is, the less it will be like its name, so you knew you were in for a bad time heading for a place called Tranquility. The Doctor does some good Doctoring, curing Ryan of the hopper virus, triaging the situation as she goes, adapting the plan for baddies that can adapt as well, and the particularly brilliant revelation about the carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange making the Dregs like “really angry trees.” Something felt a bit off and I can’t quite put my finger on what. Tiny little things, like not being able to keep the planet’s origin from the fam during the tunnel chase or not trying harder to prevent some of the side characters from sacrificing themselves. I grant you this was a particularly difficult adventure and maybe the Doctor had to be too on her toes to be on top of everything, it was just a little unsettled for me.
Our humans got some really nice moments this week. The physical comedy of Ryan’s reaction to the hopper virus alone made the whole episode worth watching. I really enjoyed Ryan’s hopeless attempts to chat up Bella and Yaz’s sisterly teasing. Graham got some nice moments, both with Sylas and Nevi and with Vilma. Having met as many side characters with their own backstories as we did this week, we knew we were in for a high body count. It felt a little packed tight and there were definitely some people I didn’t care too much about. I realize we had to have enough characters to sacrifice so that the most worthy could survive, but it was maybe just one too many. I didn’t really feel for Benni and Vilma. Vorm barely had anything to do other than wave a gun around and then die. I really enjoyed the character design and sass of Hyph3n, but I would like to have seen her have more to do and possibly make it to the end instead of dying horribly for no real reason. The father/son mechanic team of Sylas and Nevi got the best deal, which was always gonna happen because Doctor Who will do a lot of things, but it’s not gonna kill a kid. Did we need Kane to be the evil architect of this world AND Bella’s long-lost mother, especially since we already had one strained parent/child dynamic in the episode? There was just a lot going on here. I’m not sure what I’d cut, but I think cutting back one or two characters might have strengthened the episode.
And then there’s the overarching theme of the episode: Climate Change Is Bad. I certainly don’t disagree with the show on that point, and I don’t mind them using an hour of my time to deal with that subject. However, the approach was a little ham-fisted and the Doctor’s speech at the end, cut with the final shot of the Dreg as the implied consequence of inaction on the audience’s part, was too after-school special for me. I do hope it made the audience think about getting involved in the fight against climate change and making more earth-friendly choices (as I am currently on the east coast of North America in the middle of a week of spring-like temperatures in January and also Australia is on fire), but the execution of this message was preachy and came at the cost of better storytelling. The whole episode could have used another rewrite and that’s a frustrating thing to see in a show that only gets ten episodes a season and then disappears for a year.